Oscar-campaigning is something of a fine art—one perfected by publicists who know the exact combination of ads, high-profile interviews, and glad-handing at events that will result in a coveted nomination, or even a win. However, there have also been times when they (and their ambitious clients) have gone, shall we say, off-piste in their pursuit of a golden statuette. Below, we revisit the most unusual Oscar campaigns in recent history, from Melissa Leo’s self-funded extravaganza to the recent storm surrounding To Leslie.
Sally Kirkland’s grassroots effort
The star of the 1987 melodrama Anna, Kirkland knew that her indie release didn’t have the marketing budget for a splashy best-actress campaign. Her solution? To attend every event she was invited to, promote herself to every journalist she could find, and use her own money to hire two press agents and purchase trade ads. She also wrote letters to all of the Academy members she knew, and enlisted the help of friends like Andy Warhol and Joan Rivers to spread the word. It paid off—to an extent. Kirkland won a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit Award, and secured an Oscar nomination too, but eventually lost out to Cher for Moonstruck.
Shakespeare in Love’s triumph over Saving Private Ryan
At the 1999 Oscars, John Madden’s Gwyneth Paltrow-led period romance was named best picture over Steven Spielberg’s World War II saga thanks to an aggressive action plan masterminded by Harvey Weinstein, the former’s producer. Alongside the usual flurry of screenings, parties, and press, he deployed consultants to lobby Academy members and started a whisper campaign against Saving Private Ryan, insisting that the film’s power lay entirely in its first 15 minutes (the goosebump-inducing opening scene in which the US army arrives on Omaha Beach as part of the Normandy landings in 1944). It was successful in swaying voters: Shakespeare in Love took home seven statuettes, including best actress for Paltrow, while Saving Private Ryan ended the night with five, including best director for Spielberg. Even more crucially, though, it transformed the awards-season campaign model forever, making negative campaigning significantly more common.
Gangs of New York’s controversial ads
Weinstein returned to the fray with another grand scheme in 2003, when promoting the Miramax-produced Martin Scorsese epic to Academy members. His strategy included releasing a series of “for your consideration” adverts which quoted an op-ed by legendary director Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music), arguing that Scorsese deserved the best-director prize. The only problem was, it soon emerged that Wise hadn’t actually written the column—it had been penned by the publicist Murray Weissman, who was then a consultant for Miramax. He denied any wrongdoing, saying that he’d been writing statements on behalf of filmmakers for decades, but much of the industry was outraged. In the end, Gangs of New York went home empty-handed despite its 10 nods, and Rob Marshall’s Chicago won best picture.
Melissa Leo’s delightfully brazen approach
While campaigning for recognition for her explosive turn in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, the then-50-year-old actor became concerned that her age was preventing her from landing magazine covers (in contrast to her competitors, including co-star Amy Adams) and thus reaching more voters. So, she herself paid for trade ads which showed her posing in furs with the phrase “consider…” emblazoned above her. The images were widely parodied, but Leo stood her ground. At the 2011 Oscar nominees’ luncheon, when asked why she decided on this tactic, she told The New York Times, “This entire awards process, to some degree, is about pimping yourself out. I’m confident my fans will understand the ads were about showing a different side of myself.” Come Oscar night, she scooped best supporting actress—and seemed genuinely speechless.
Lady Gaga’s unforgettable bids
No one could accuse the multihyphenate of lacking commitment: On the Oscar trail for A Star is Born in 2019, she repeated the story about how “there can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you, but all it takes is one” until it became a meme. She missed out on the best-actress Oscar (which went to The Favourite’s Olivia Colman) but won best original song for “Shallow,” and returned with an even more dedicated campaign in 2022 for House of Gucci. This one involved giving a string of increasingly bizarre interviews which covered, but were not limited to: how she lived as her character, Patrizia Reggiani, for a year and a half and spoke with her accent for nine months; wrote an 80-page biography of her; felt drunk from drinking prop drinks on set; got into character by imitating a panther on the floor of her hotel room; and her belief that Patrizia herself had sent swarms of flies to follow her around on the last day of filming. On Oscar nominations morning, she was sadly snubbed.
To Leslie’s last-minute, A-list-powered surge
Michael Morris’s portrait of an alcoholic single mother from West Texas had received critical praise since premiering at South by Southwest in 2022, but little Oscar buzz. That changed when its well-connected director and his wife, Mary McCormack, asked A-list friends like Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Edward Norton, Amy Adams, and Kate Winslet to spotlight Andrea Riseborough’s compelling central performance as the nominations voting period began. Cue effusive praise; star-studded screenings; almost identical tweets calling To Leslie “a small film with a giant heart”; and a best-actress nod for Riseborough that few thought would be possible, at the expense of the likes of Till’s Danielle Deadwyler and The Woman King’s Viola Davis. In the days that followed, it prompted an Academy review into campaign procedures as well as discussions about elitism. Unless there are notable changes to the rules, it seems inevitable that similar tactics will be employed by Hollywood insiders in the years to come.